By Julia Conley, Common Dreams
Out of the 1.7 million people who have been forced from their homes in Gaza by Israel's bombardment over the past four months, about 1%—17,000—are children who are now navigating the humanitarian crisis without their parents and guardians, the United Nations Children's Fund said Friday.
Jonathan Crickx, UNICEF's chief of communication in Palestine, said at a briefing in Geneva that the agency now estimates 17,000 children in Gaza are "unaccompanied or separated from their families," with their parents and guardians either killed by Israel's relentless air and ground attacks, missing, or otherwise unable to care for them—while virtually all the children in the enclave are suffering from trauma.
Crickx emphasized that the number of orphaned children is a rough estimate "since it is nearly impossible to gather and verify information under the current security and humanitarian conditions," and shared with the press that on his most recent trip to Gaza he met 12 children, "each one with her or his own devastating story to tell."
"More than half of them had lost a family member in this war. Three had lost a parent, of which, two had lost both their mother and their father. Behind each of these statistics is a child who is coming to terms with this horrible new reality," said Crickx before telling the story of an 11-year-old girl, Razan, whose parents and three siblings were killed when her uncle's house was bombed in the first weeks of the war.
Razan's leg had to be amputated and following the surgery—which, in many cases, doctors in Gaza have resorted to performing without anesthesia or proper antiseptics—her wound got infected. Her aunt and uncle are now caring for her in Rafah, the city to which the surviving family members have been displaced.
Crickz also described meeting two cousins, aged six and four, whose "entire respective families were killed in the first half of December," leaving them "very much in shock" and with no one to care for them.
Prior to Israel's current U.S.-backed war on the civilian population of Gaza, about half of the enclave's 1.1 million children were in need of mental health and psychosocial support. Before October, 80% of the population relied on humanitarian assistance to survive and about half of adults were unemployed.
Now, said Crickx, "all of [the children in Gaza], more than 1 million children, need mental support."
Crickx and other UNICEF workers have met children who "present symptoms like extremely high level of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite, they can't sleep, they have emotional outburst[s], or they panic every time they hear a bombing."
The Israeli government and its defenders in the U.S. and other Western countries have claimed the Israel Defense Forces are targeting Hamas in retaliation for its attack on October 7, even as evidence mounts that the Israel Defense Forces are carrying out a genocide. At least 27,131 people have been killed in Gaza so far, including 11,500 children.
"These children don't have anything to do with this conflict," said Crickx on Friday. "Yet they are suffering like no child should ever suffer. Not a single child, whatever the religion, the nationality, the language, the race, no child should ever be exposed to the level of violence seen on the 7th of October, or to the level of violence that we have witnessed since then."
Crickx highlighted the mental health and psychosocial support UNICEF and its partner organizations have provided to more than 40,000 children and 10,000 caregivers since October 7, with relief workers leading people seeking shelter at refugee camps in games, songs, and other activities.
"I attended one of these activities and it is really a relief to see children play, draw, dance, sing, and smile," said Crickx. "It helps them to cope with the terrible situation they are going through. But of course, this is far from sufficient when we see the scale of the needs."
A permanent cease-fire, said the spokesperson, is "the only way to have this mental health and psychosocial support delivered at scale."
"Before this war, in 2022, the child protection cluster led by UNICEF provided this support to nearly 100,000 children," said Crickx. "It is possible to scale up now. We have done it before. But it is not possible under the current security and humanitarian conditions."
Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.
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